You’ve Got Something in Your Teeth

The Art of Sharing Constructive Criticism

Nobody wants to hear “you’ve got something in your teeth.” But, if you’re the one with something obviously wedged in there for the whole world to see, wouldn’t you want your friend or loved one to let you know? Most of us would.

Friends and loved ones who really care about each other want the best for each other. Sometimes, wanting the best for someone means being honest about things that might be uncomfortable or even difficult for the person to hear.

Honesty can anchor a relationship, but that doesn’t mean being honest is easy. The good intentions that go along with being honest do not always receive the hoped for positive response. Honest observations can be viewed as criticism, and it’s easy to take criticism personally. Even a seemingly harmless comment about something like food in someone’s teeth, a spot missed when shaving, or smudged lipstick can be met with anger and hurt. Why?  Because, even if well intended, such a comment may be perceived as insulting, disapproving, or condemning. It may feel like a personal affront.

Providing unsolicited constructive criticism is one of the most delicate and challenging dances in a relationship. The well-intentioned message can become eclipsed by the words you use or how you say them. Delivery matters.

The next time you offer a friend or loved one a bit of constructive criticism, take time to think before you speak. Share the information in a way that reflects your love and compassion and leaves the person feeling fortunate, if not overjoyed, to have received your input.

Helpful tips for sharing constructive criticism…

  • Be discerning. Share critical observations only when they are needed and beneficial to the recipient. Make sure you are providing the information for all the right reasons. Use constructive criticism only to improve someone’s life and self-image. There are plenty of things in the world that whittle away at our self-esteem. Don’t be one of those things in the life of someone you love.

  • Make sure change is possible. Only offer constructive criticism about something the person has the power to influence or change. There is no upside to pointing out something negative that’s beyond someone’s control.

  • Think about who you are addressing. Consider the person you are dealing with and how he or she might react. If someone is shy and/or insecure, tailor your message accordingly. Be cautious and gentle. Think about how your friend or loved one might react before you say anything. Give yourself a chance to find the right approach.
  • Be mindful of your tone of voice. The tone of your voice should reflect the compassion and sincerity behind your message. Use a tone of voice you would feel comfortable hearing if your friend or loved one shared the same message with you.

  • Smile, show empathy, and use encouraging body language. A caring smile will help lighten any subject and can keep a critical observation from feeling demeaning or painful. Expressing empathy and letting your friend or loved one know that you’ve been in a similar situation can help put that person at ease. Nodding your head, leaning in, and keeping your body open without crossing your arms or legs are all encouraging signs that show you are not being judgmental.

  • Offset the negatives with positives. Hearing something good first can make it a whole lot easier to hear something else that may not be as positive or easy to take in. Try to begin and end your conversation with something positive. For example, someone might have food stuck in their teeth but that person may also have a really great smile!

  • Always respect people’s privacy. Never tell a friend or loved one something that might be embarrassing or upsetting in front of an audience. If it’s something you feel certain the person should hear immediately, pull the individual away from the group and share the news out of earshot.

  • Be specific about your message. Focus on the cause for whatever it is you are sharing with your loved one or friend. You don’t want your message coming across as being critical of your loved one or friend as a person. You don’t want someone to read more into your message than is actually there. By being specific, you can make sure your loving, positive intentions are conveyed and understood.

  • Keep it short. Say what you have to say and move on. Do not keep harping on the same issue or heap on any additional observations or appraisals. “You’ve got something in your teeth” says it all. Maybe it would be helpful to let the person know the exact spot where the “something” is impacting his or her smile, but that is all you really need to share at that moment.

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